Comedy is hard, as the saying goes, but unshakably in the blood of writer-director Trent Cooper, whose latest film, the rangy ensemble farce “Father of Invention,” centers on a disgraced infomercial wizard, Robert Axle (Kevin Spacey), who gets out of prison and tries to start putting his life back together. Robert shacks up with his semi-estranged daughter (Camilla Belle) and her roommates, and gets a job working at a retail superstore, but finds his ex-wife (Virginia Madsen) remarried, and various attempts to secure start-up financing for a new idea stymied at every turn. ShockYa recently had a chance to talk one-on-one with Cooper, about his new movie, his feelings of warmth and affinity for Larry the Cable Guy, the debt of gratitude he owes Samuel L. Jackson, and, well, names. The conversation is excerpted below:
Trent Cooper: I wish my name was Brent instead of Trent. I’ve always liked the way that sounds.
ShockYa: Ahh, you’re just saying that.
TC: Nah, Brent’s a better name.
ShockYa: It’s somewhat funny because one of my best friends in high school was also named Brent, and then I had homeroom and other classes with both a Brett and a Trent, so it was very, very confusing to that poor teacher.
TC: And I bet the Trent was a fucking asshole, wasn’t he?
ShockYa: No, he was a quiet guy as I recall. So do you get “Brent” from the telemarketers when they mangle your name?
TC: No, I get Trevor, mostly, and sometimes Trey. But I’m starting to warm up to the idea.
ShockYa: Your film, to me, feels like such a ripe premise for comedic exploitation — the behind-the-scenes life of an infomercial shaman. I don’t if this came into focus before or after the Shamwow guy got arrested for beating the hooker, but was that the major hook for you, Kevin’s character?
TC: (laughs) You know, the story was originally written by one of the producers, Jonathan Krane, who wrote it in the mid-’90s. But he brought me in almost 15 years later to do a re-write and make it my own, and he really empowered me to run with it. I’ve always been fascinated by these dudes as well, and bought a lot of their crap on late-night TV. So I was fascinated by the world, but I think it’s also a really classical theme that I wrestle with daily, and all my friends do too — you have an incredible passion about whatever it is that you do, you work your ass off and try to hopefully be great at it, and it’s really hard to do that and not lose your connection with your [family]. I’ve always been attracted to stories that deal with that; it’s very present in all the scripts that I’ve written and continue to write about fathers and their connections with their kids.
ShockYa: That experience of re-writing Jonathan’s script and making it your own perhaps speaks to one of the qualities of the film that struck me, which is that it felt like an adaptation of a novel — very plot-stuffed, with [all sorts of stories] to serve. What were the elements that you really pumped up, and what story strands did you have to condense or jettison?
TC: Um, the main character talks a lot about connecting two things that don’t belong together, and that was sort of his thing, and at the root of his professional success. So we started to look at all the relationships in this film and find two things or people that you would never think belonged together and put them together — like Johnny Knoxville’s character and Kevin Spacey’s, or Virginia Madsen’s character and Craig [Robinson, who plays her new husband]. It was about finding all these disparate parts and working them together into a symphony. That’s how we approached the whole movie, in terms of casting and storytelling. I love movies that give their supporting cast a little more opportunity to grow, and I feel like all of the characters in this movie come to us from a very broken place and they don’t even realize that they’re all changing as a result of this guy being put back in their lives. So I tried very hard to get that ensemble to really sing, and I think that that’s where a lot of the fun in the movie is. But it’s really a bunch of classical themes, and it’s really inspired by old Billy Wilder movies — even the way it’s shot, it’s kind of a throwback. I feel like movies often try to be too complicated, but I like simple and classical, and I think that’s what we set out to do, and what we got.
ShockYa: What’s a bit of your background, then, and were you always a kid that was into and interested in movies, even from a young age?
TC: Yes, for sure, and it’s funny — I mean, my kid’s growing up in L.A., so it’s all right in front of them, but I grew up in the South, in Polk County, Florida, where it ain’t even on the table. I didn’t even know film school was an option, or that it existed. There’s nothing creative happening down there. But you sit there and watch those movies and love them — it’s a bunch of worlds that you escape to. And as I got older, my first vehicle into the business was commercials. I used to write advertising copy, and then I started directing commercials, and I always looked at it as having 30 seconds to tell a story, or a little scene from a movie. And I thought if I was good enough at that then maybe I could do it in a longer format. So in my 20s I was directing commercials, and my first real break was a short film I did called “The Comeback,” with Samuel L. Jackson in it. It was a Christopher Guest-type mockumentary that was only four minutes long, but it was that little piece of magic that screened at festivals all over the world, and it was the first time I’d ever sat in a movie theater and heard people laughing at my shit, you know? It was really, really infectious. That short film helped get me out of commercials and make a transition into features. I was making a living as a screenwriter for a while, and then I did Larry the Cable Guy’s first movie (“Health Inspector”), which was really for his audience.
ShockYa: Well I was going to ask about that, because “Health Inspector” obviously represents a huge professional opportunity — the chance to do a feature film — but there’s also that perception to which you alluded, of it being maybe a downmarket or throwaway piece of entertainment. How reticent were you about tackling that as your first movie as a director?
TC: You know what, man, I don’t really care. I think he’s hysterical. I grew up in this redneck town, and when I was in high school I used to listen to this guy call in to my favorite radio station and play all these characters. My friends and I would sit in the parking lot and laugh, and I would be late for school because he was so stinking funny. Twenty years later, it turns out he’s Larry the Cable Guy, and that was just one of his characters. He lived two towns away from me. Look, I love comedy, I love making people laugh. I did the Sam Jackson thing, which was a little more highbrow, and then that was lowbrow, and [“Father of Invention”] is obviously very smart and thoughtful. And this thing I’m about to do is a little like “Napoleon Dynamite,” a rated-R high school movie. People in New York and L.A. may hate Larry, but when you’re in the middle of the country he’s Elvis.
ShockYa: Tell me about the casting for “Father of Invention,” because while Kevin is a great fit for his character — half-sincere, but also with the soul of a huckster — it seems sometimes you’re casting against perception or strength.
TC: I think we really wanted fresh and exciting combinations of actors that you would never expect to be in the same movie. We had an opportunity to be very safe in a lot of these roles, and there was an urge to always embrace the unexpected. That, to me, was again always about honoring the true spirit of the film, and connecting two things that you’d never expect belong together.
ShockYa: You mentioned your new film, “Holy Takedown.” Tell me a little bit more about that.
TC: I didn’t write the script, but I’ve been working with these young writers and I’m really excited about it. It’s just very fresh and funny, and it feels like a new voice in comedy. The script is one of those that seems to be [gatherring some buzz], and a lot of actors want to be a part of. We just hit the town about a week ago, and set our start date. It’s a very different comedy than I’ve made before, but it does have some classical elements, like a bully and coming-of-age [elements]. I can’t really tell you the actors yet, because we haven’t finalized their deals, but it’s going to be cool — one of those cool, sneaky movies that everyone is really talking about and excited about. The idea is to shoot between Thanksgiving and Christmas, which is pretty ambitious. It’s a little, 21-day shoot in L.A.
ShockYa: I encourage you to bank some sleep now, then, because it doesn’t sound like you’ll be getting much during the run-up to the holidays.
TC: I know, I know. I’ve done 25 [days], 23 and now this will be 21. I’m getting less days, but we’re going to try to make it for under $1 million, which I’m actually excited about in a very real way. You have to find a way to do things for less money, so you can actually do them more often. And it always, always, always starts with a good script, and finding something that people are excited about.
Written by: Brent Simon